CHURCHILL AND THE GENERALS: 1939-45
By Mike Lepine
Danann Books/Trafalgar Square, $55, 135 pages, illustrated
Even if you’ve read umpteen books about Winston Churchill and even if you think you already know enough about the wartime leader’s relationship with his generals, you may still want to read this book by a well-known British military historian. First of all, because it is as concise as it is highly informed, but also because it has the additional merit of being unusually finely attuned to the great man and to the military leaders he chose, promoted, fired and tolerated. Add to that a lively writing style that makes the characters sparkle as they seem to leap off the page and a host of fascinating illustrations — both icing on the cake if you will, but still an additional inducement for even the most jaded of readers.
It must also be said that the sketch of Churchill which begins Mr. Lepine’s book is so compact (a mere 50 pages) yet so intelligent and informative that someone who knows next to nothing about him could do worse than start with it. The generals are all in their different ways interesting men, but there is no doubt who the star is in these pages. He emerges magnificent in his qualities and in his contradictions, a very human character who could also seem almost superhuman in his resilience, fortitude and indomitable courage.
We read that he enjoyed most of all in his childhood playing with his huge collection of toy soldiers and, even as he organized and oversaw the command of real armies engaged in bloody and lethal combat with the fate of freedom hanging on their success, he never lost a touch of the ludic to leaven the deadly seriousness of his all-encompassing effort. But he had also trained as a professional soldier at Sandhurst (Britain’s West Point) and was a veteran of several wars, having participated in engagements ranging from the excitement and glamour of the British Army’s last major cavalry charge at Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898 to the grim trenches of World War I France.
As first lord of the Admiralty at the outset of both world wars and in other Cabinet posts, he was experienced in the ways of effecting civilian control of the military. His record before becoming prime minister in 1940, as his nation and the free world faced perhaps it gravest threat ever, was spotty at best. But he brought an unusual amount of experience of both success and failure, and it is hard to imagine anyone else succeeding as he did.
Mr. Lepine does not gloss over his less-attractive qualities, like petulance and a level of rough treatment of colleagues and subordinates that led even the toughest of his generals to fume and no less than his wife to reprimand him. He could be ruthless in sidelining or replacing generals who were not producing the needed results, but as one of his great predecessors as Prime Minister William Gladstone famously said about firing his ministers, the top job called for highly developed skills as a butcher. And if this was true in peacetime, war justified — and often called forth — much greater butchery with little time for worrying about pride or bruised egos.
As for the thumbnail portraits of the nine British and two American generals, they are veritable masterpieces of concision and packed information, especially when you consider most of them are only half a dozen pages in length. Mr. Lepine even takes time to tell us about their private lives (marriages, for example) and each general is characterized by a word or phrase, ranging from The Bruiser (the aptly-named Gen. Edmund Ironside) to The Scholar (Field Marshall Archibald Wavell), from The Dandy (Gen. Harold Alexander) to The Bridge Builder (Field Marshall John Dill). U.S. Gen. George C. Marshall is The Professional, while Dwight D. Eisenhower is The Spearhead, most fitting in light of D-Day. Gen. Alan Brooke, who worked most closely with the prime minister, gets the sobriquet The Other Half. And Mr. Lepine also salts his portraits with delicious quotes about the generals: Wavell on Churchill: “Winston is always expecting rabbits to come out of empty hats” and Churchill on Montgomery: “In defeat, unbeatable; in victory, unbearable.”
What a pity Mr. Lepine did not include Gen. Charles de Gaulle among his collection of Churchill’s generals. After all, he elicited one of Churchill’s most memorable, as well as perhaps his most heartfelt quip: “The heaviest cross I have to bear is the Cross of Lorraine.” No matter how exasperated the great man became with his touchy, difficult, but indispensable French ally, he never lost his sense of humor and who’s to say he could have won the war without it.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.